Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Last Throes

Mass graves, napalmed corpses, and a little girl with a blinding smile.

One of the few dismal, traumatic films I find easy to watch repeatedly, the animated Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is also sweet and rapturous, in an E.T. kind of way. A near-century of Disney's batted eyelashes and pouncing villains can't compete with the character animation in Fireflies. I become attached instantly to the film's two orphaned siblings as they escape a firebombed Japanese city in the last days of World War II. The little sister, Setsuko, has no idea that her parents are gone; her big brother Seita doesn't know how to tell her. And so they spend their days scavenging and playing silly games in the forest and along the beach. It's a reverie as beautiful and affecting as any in cinema.


Director Isao Takahata's animators render the minutest changes in the children's demeanor, creating complete performances. The way a neck cranes, a foot sideswipes a pile of dirt, a parasol twirls on the wind... I'll take these microscopic gestures over the Pixar/Dreamworks troupes of breakdancing robots, toys and beasts any day. The child voice actors (in the Japanese version) also sound completely natural.

When the reverie ends and a torrent of grief begins, Takahata is just as exacting in translating the emotions into poetic gesture. He is squarely in the tradition of his countrymen Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi: Steady, stealthy, revelatory storytelling in which a single slow pan or subjective cutaway can take us from heaven to hell. Or straight into a character's soul.


Grave of the Fireflies is twice as devastating upon second viewing, where Takahata's gently skewed structure (from a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the real-life Seita who survived similar tragedies during WWII) makes the impending losses deepen and become personal for the viewer. I love Seita and Setsuko as if they were my own children because, as rendered by Takahata and his endlessly compassionate animators, they are.

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